Abstract Expressionism
Werner Hammerstingl ©1998

Expressionism, in general, describes the artist's philosophical perspective concerning the purpose of their art more than specifically defining their method.

Webster's dictionary on WWW, Main Entry: abstract expressionism Function: noun Date: 1951 : an artistic movement of the mid-20th century comprising diverse styles and techniques and emphasizing especially an artist's liberty to convey attitudes and emotions through nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational means - abstract expressionist noun or adjective

The movement of abstract expressionism originating in the middle of the twentieth century was an approach to modernism/ post-modernism accentuating the uninhibited expression of emotions. The products of this genre are characteristically free and loosely structured, stylistically. They tend to focus on the sensual and psychological subjects, but as abstractions, essentially avoid any clear representational imitation of reality.

However great a disaster World War II was, it did at least mean that artists such as Paul Klee, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian and Max Ernst, in leaving Europe for the safety of the USA, greatly extended their artistic influence. It is impossible to estimate how much they affected American art, but the fact remains that in the 1940s and '50s, for the first time, American artists became internationally important with their new vision and new artistic vocabulary, known as Abstract Expressionism.

The first public exhibitions of work by the ``New York School'' of artists-- who were to become known as Abstract Expressionists-- were held in the mid '40s. Like many other modern movements, Abstract Expressionism does not describe any one particular style, but rather a general attitude; not all the work was abstract, nor was it all expressive. What these artists did have in common were morally loaded themes, often heavyweight and tragic, on a grand scale. In contrast to the themes of social realism and regional life that characterized American art of previous decades, these artists valued, above all, individuality and spontaneous improvisation. They felt ill at ease with conventional subjects and styles, neither of which could adequately convey their new vision. In fact, style as such almost ceased to exist with the Abstract Expressionists, and they drew their inspiration from all directions.

The painters who came to be called ``Abstract Expressionists'' shared a similarity of outlook rather than of style-- an outlook characterized by a spirit of revolt and a belief in freedom of expression. The main exponents of the genre were

The term Abstract Expressionism was first used by Robert Coates in the March issue of the New Yorker in 1936. The movement was hugely successful, partly due to the efforts of the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg who also originated the terms Action Painting and American Style.

Stella's works have been called critical rebellion against abstract expressionism as well as heralded as examples of it. The works of Frank Stella have evolved to exhibit the extravagant designs, wild flourishes, and vivid, variety of the chromatic spectrum that makes him an expressionist. But on the surface, his first works seem hardly effusive or passionate. Still, even the minimal, geometric patterns of his early work must not be dismissed as simple and cold. They hint at the deep mystery and illusion as he breaks the structure of framing and two-dimensional ground and maintains personality of line even in the deceptively hard-edge Black and Metallic exhibit. His more recent pieces, high relief collages and metallic sculpture, are more clearly bold, progressive works influenced by abstract expressionism.

Pollock, Jackson (1912-56). American painter, the commanding figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement.(also known as Jack the dripper)

``On the floor I am more at ease, I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around in it, work from the four sides and be literally `in' the painting.'' -- Jackson Pollock, 1947.

He began to study painting in 1929 at the Art Students' League, New York, under the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. During the 1930s he worked in the manner of the Regionalists, being influenced also by the Mexican muralist painters (Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros) and by certain aspects of Surrealism. From 1938 to 1942 he worked for the Federal Art Project. By the mid 1940s he was painting in a completely abstract manner, and the `drip and splash' style for which he is best known emerged with some abruptness in 1947. Instead of using the traditional easel he affixed his canvas to the floor or the wall and poured and dripped his paint from a can; instead of using brushes he manipulated it with `sticks, trowels or knives' (to use his own words), sometimes obtaining a heavy impasto by an admixture of `sand, broken glass or other foreign matter'. This manner of Action painting had in common with Surrealist theories of automatism that it was supposed by artists and critics alike to result in a direct expression or revelation of the unconscious moods of the artist.

Pollock's name is also associated with the introduction of the All-over style of painting which avoids any points of emphasis or identifiable parts within the whole canvas and therefore abandons the traditional idea of composition in terms of relations among parts. The design of his painting had no relation to the shape or size of the canvas -- indeed in the finished work the canvas was sometimes docked or trimmed to suit the image. All these characteristics were important for the new American painting which matured in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Action painting: Pollock was the first ``all-over'' painter, pouring paint rather than using brushes and a palette, and abandoning all conventions of a central motif. He danced in semi-ecstasy over canvases spread across the floor, lost in his patternings, dripping and dribbling with total control. He said: ``The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.'' He painted no image, just ``action'', though ``action painting'' seems an inadequate term for the finished result of his creative process. Lavender Mist is 3 m long (nearly 10 ft), a vast expanse on a heroic scale. It is alive with colored scribble, spattered lines moving this way and that, now thickening, now trailing off to a slender skein. The eye is kept continually eager, not allowed to rest on any particular area. Pollock has put his hands into paint and placed them at the top right-- an instinctive gesture eerily reminiscent of cave painters who did the same. The overall tone is a pale lavender, maide airy and active. At the time Pollock was heiled as the greatest American painter, but there are already those who feel his work is not holding up in every respect.

Lee Krasner (1908-84), who married Pollock in 1944, was not celebrated at all during her lifetime (cut short in 1956 by a fatal car crash), but it was actually she who first started covering the canvas with a passionate flurry of marks. The originality of her vision, its stiff integrity and its great sense of internal cohesion, is now beginning to be recognized. Cobalt Night (1962; 237 x 401 cm (7 ft 9 1/3 x 13 ft 2 in)) at 4 m (over 13 ft) is even larger than Lavender Mist and has the same kind of heroic ambition.

1950 Change was in the air and on the walls. Europe's boldest artistic experiments had become almost mainstream. Startling innovations were being experimented in America by artists like Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning to term the radical art movement Abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism would take America by surprise. A leading New York School painter, Jackson Pollock (also known as Jack the dripper) delved into Karl Jung's theory of the collective unconsciouness. During this time modern paintings were to say the least abstract, and often dealt with the artists psyche and state of mind when the painting was created.

Like movements in time, abstract expressionism would develop a new and improved look (so to speak). If abstract expressionism was to be thought of as abstract, hard edge painters took out the "abstract" in painting. Hard edge paintings exhibited calculated, impersonal expressionism; instead of spontaneous, subjective abstract expressionism. Hard edge painters preferred sharply contoured, simple forms. The paintings are termed as "precise and cool", as if made by machines. Frank Stella perfectly describes Hard edge painting as: "What you see is what you see".......